Astaxanthin: Carotenoid Super-Power, and Antioxidant Powerhouse

Astaxanthin

The name may be hard to pronounce, but there is no mistaking the slew of health benefits associated with this powerhouse of a carotenoid. 

Before we delve into astaxanthin specifically, first we should understand what carotenoids ‘are’ and their benefit to human consumption. Carotenoids are responsible for the pigments or colors you see in brightly colored fruit and vegetables. These are found in plants, along with other lifeforms like algae and bacteria. Often, these specific compounds are associated with bright reds, yellows, and oranges in plant matter. 

All About Carotenoids

These carotenoids also act as potent antioxidants in the human body. Dietary intake is associated with benefits due to this antioxidant and anti-inflammatory potential for reducing the risk of chronic illness, disease, and oxidative stress.

There are plenty of fairly popular carotenoids that are now regularly used as supplements to address a variety of health concerns – lycopene (tomatoes), lutein, beta carotene, zeaxanthin, and astaxanthin are among the most common. 

These compounds are fat-soluble and should be consumed with dietary fat. This ensures enhanced absorption and utilization by the body. Often, supplements for carotenoids like astaxanthin or beta-carotene will be in a soft gel capsule that contains oil (fat source) or encapsulation of fatty acids.

Carotenoids themselves are associated with a variety of health benefits and protective benefits (cardioprotective and neuroprotective). They are routinely linked to eye health, anti-carcinogenic properties, reducing risk factors for heart disease, LDL or “bad” cholesterol, stroke, and cardiovascular events. 

Specifically, we are looking at astaxanthin, which is among the most potent and protective – noted scientifically for the extremely high antioxidant levels it contains, comparable to that of Chaga mushrooms and much higher than that of acai berries.

While we know most of these carotenoids come from fruit and vegetables, astaxanthin is derived from a microalga that has a stark red-orange hue. Aquatic life that eats these algae and feeds on it are often noted for their red pigments – salmon, shrimp, krill, crabs, lobsters, crayfish, and red trout are all notable examples that display the astaxanthin pigment. 

In Europe, it is considered for use as a food dye, and the FDA has approved it as a color additive in animal food products. In general, astaxanthin from natural sources (algae or yeast-derived) or synthetic sources (lab produced) is given the “generally recognized as safe” approval from the FDA for use in supplements. 

Astaxanthin’s Rise to Popularity as Powerhouse Supplement

While astaxanthin is a supplement that has only more recently begun to be clinically researched and studied (~10 years), there is already a wealth of evidence of its role in human health as a major source of antioxidants that offer protection from liver injury, kidney injury, high blood pressure, poor vision, LDL “bad” cholesterol, and joint pain – to name a few. 

The liver is absolutely essential to healthy functioning, given its important role in the body of metabolizing harmful substances and chemicals, toxic by-products, and regulating hundreds of other vital functions. Astaxanthin seems to confer protection from a wide range of liver disease-related conditions by offering extremely potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support. Liver fibrosis, liver cancer, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, drug-induced liver injury, and liver ischemia were all accounted for in studies. It exerts protective and therapeutic effects in these cases, offering protection as a preventative measure or therapeutic relief in those with these pre-existing conditions. 

Not only is astaxanthin regarded for its antioxidant powers on the liver, but it also appears to help regulate insulin resistance and fat synthesis, and inhibit tumor growth. 

If astaxanthin is healthy for the liver, it seems to make sense that it confers a benefit to our other important organs. In studies, kidney health was also positively impacted by supplementation with astaxanthin versus controls. As astaxanthin prevents oxidative stress, several studies have looked at it as a potential therapeutic in addressing kidney injury and function – astaxanthin appeared to prevent necrosis and destruction of the kidneys after oxidative injury in kidney tissue. 

Astaxanthin also suppressed cell proliferation of cancerous cells, and this not only applies to the kidneys but our other vital organs. Anti-carcinogenic, it can inhibit tumor growth and cancerous cell proliferation. Astaxanthin and other carotenoids were also found to reduce the risk of kidney disease, along with the severity in sufferers. 

Astaxanthin seems to prevent and reduce the replication of H. pylori – the bacterium associated with gastric distress, stomach ulcers, SIBO, and other digestive complications. 

But wait, what about cardiovascular health? Can astaxanthin also help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and lower cholesterol levels? 

It would certainly appear so. Not only does astaxanthin appear to exert the ability to reduce LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol while raising HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol, but it also appears to have protective effects against cardiovascular disease and stroke. Given its profound impact in lowering inflammation, fighting free radicals, aiding fat metabolism, aiding glucose metabolism, and effectively reducing lipid oxidization in both the elderly and middle-aged (even when accounting for a history of smoking, alcohol use, and diabetes) astaxanthin is quite the impressive carotenoid. 

Astaxanthin for Eye Health

Most commonly we see carotenoids (like beta-carotene) associated with eye health – as protective supplements for maintaining vision or reducing the damage caused by blue light exposure from computers, phones, tablets, and screens.

Astaxanthin is no different in this regard. 

Studies have found astaxanthin to be useful for reducing the symptoms severity of dry eyes, blurry vision, visual fatigue, ‘floaters,’ and photosensitivity. Macular degeneration is an increasingly common concern and becoming more prevalent even among younger adults. This causes reduced visual acuity (or blurriness) from a “thinning of the macula.” It is a primary cause of vision loss later in life. While this does not mean immediate blindness, it can lead to a lot of vision problems and difficulty with eyesight – especially reading small print or text. 

Other carotenoids, along with astaxanthin, have a long-standing history of therapeutic use to address macular degeneration as effective antioxidants. These can help protect against damage induced in the retina and macula. Astaxanthin was found to improve the ability of the eye to also change focus from distances (near to far, and vice versa), blood flow in the capillaries of the eye, and response speed in those with eye fatigue, and sharper visual acuity. 

Astaxanthin’s ability to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) lends it these potent benefits for vision health, along with a wealth of benefits for neurological health. 

Astaxanthin for Brain Health and Neurocognitive Decline

Many are suffering from neurological disorders, or are extremely concerned about cognitive decline as they naturally age. This is reasonable, as our brain health is extremely important to our livelihood, well-being, and ensuring we can provide for ourselves or our loved ones. Astaxanthin in studies helped the elderly with cognitive functions, motor and executive functions, and forgetfulness when used for a period of 12-16 weeks at a 12mg dosage. Participants in both studies showed no adverse effects and noted significant improvement compared to controls. 

Given astaxanthin’s ability to reduce free radicals and oxidative stress while effectively crossing the blood-brain barrier, it may offer relief to those suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, or Parkinson’s Disease. In animal trials, astaxanthin appeared to protect against the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia while elevating levels of “brain-derived neurotrophic factor.” This is essential for memory recall, information retention, and learning. Astaxanthin promotes neuroplasticity. 

Neurological inflammation can often be the root cause of common cognitive diseases, and astaxanthin offers therapeutic potential as an option to drastically reduce the risk and severity caused by neurodegeneration. This includes that induced by free radicals, oxidization, inflammation, and plaque formation. This carotenoid can also protect the brain from injury due to heavy metals (aluminum and lead), chemotherapy, cigarette smoke, and other neurotoxic compounds we experience and are exposed to in daily life. 

When it comes to supplementing with astaxanthin, ensure you always talk to a health care professional or doctor if you’re already on any medications – specifically those that thin the blood as astaxanthin may increase this effect of blood thinners, if you have any autoimmune conditions, or are currently undergoing treatment for any medical condition. Ensure that whatever supplement you settle upon is derived from natural sources (marine algae, yeast, seafood) rather than synthetically produced. Synthetic astaxanthin is found to be ineffective in comparison to natural sources, which are significantly more potent and protective in research studies. Most companies will detail the source and origin of astaxanthin on the bottle or on their website listing the ingredients of the product. Since astaxanthin is quite hard to derive on a regular basis from food (seafood like krill, shrimp, lobster, and salmon) incorporating a 4mg -12mg daily dose into your supplement routine is an effective way to boost antioxidant protection from one of nature’s most powerful. 

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